BAILYVILLE, Maine (From news reports) -- Eighty workers at Woodland Pulp, a paper mill in Baileyville, are among the few in Maine to be approved for unemployment benefits while on strike.
The workers, who have been striking for about a month, acquired eligibility because of a clause in state law that permits unemployment benefits for striking workers if a business' operations continue as normal. Woodland Pulp brought in temporary replacements to keep the plant running.
In announcing their intent to strike last month, workers said management was trying to change job classifications that would endanger job security. Specifically, they alleged management was attempting to replace millwright, pipefitter, machinist and auto mechanic positions with a general mechanic classification.
"You're talking about some very proud tradesmen that developed their trade from their fathers and their grandfathers. This isn't about wages. This is about those proud tradesmen protecting their core traits," said Danny Loudermilk, the District 4 business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.
The IAM filed a complaint in August with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Woodland management waited until negotiations were well underway to reveal its concessionary job classification proposal, and then refused to provide satisfactory financial information.
Loudermilk said the union believes changing the trade titles to general mechanic classifications, will allow Woodland Pulp "to do a lot of different things with less people."
Brendan Wolf, the lead negotiator with Woodland Pulp, said the mill is simply looking for "workforce flexibility."
"It's largely for efficiency reasons and simplification of finding out, 'who can do, what particular type of work?' " Wolf said. "It basically enables us to have more workers with a multitude of skills. We certainly want to utilize (the original skills), but we want them to learn additional skills that can be utilized at the workplace."
Wolf said the union denied the mill's request for contract extensions to allow time for bargaining.
Two weeks after launching the strike on Oct. 14, IAM made claims that Woodland Pulp has hired temporary replacement workers through Strom Engineering Corp. to fill the gaps left by striking workers. IAM said that Woodland Pulp hiring temporary workers who cross a picket line was a "sign of disrespect to workers and the community," and has increased tensions.
The temporary replacement workers have paved the way for the striking workers to collect unemployment. For more than 15 years, Maine's Unemployment Compensation statutes have allowed workers involved in labor dispute work stoppages to collect unemployment if the company is able to maintain "substantially normal operations." But it is rarely invoked.
The Maine Department of Labor was unable to comment on the situation in Baileyville because of confidentiality rules. But spokesperson Jessica Picard said the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation must hear from both an employer and the affected union before making a formal decision regarding the right to collect unemployment benefits during a strike.
Wolf confirmed Woodland Pulp hired 12 temporary-replacement workers and, alongside salaried workers, has been able to fill the gaps and maintain "very normal operations."
There is an opportunity for either party to appeal the decision regarding benefits. Woodland Pulp is consulting with legal counsel on whether to pursue that, Wolf said.
IAM is applauding the decision because it will give them the ability to continue putting pressure on Woodland Pulp during contract negotiations without workers struggling financially.
"Some of those striking workers lost their medical benefits, lost their pay. Some of them can survive based on their spouse's employment, but some of these members have nothing now. They were the breadwinners in the family. So this is a shot in the arm for those guys who get absolutely nothing," Loudermilk said. "The company thought they could starve these guys out. But with unemployment benefits, it gives them new life to know that we can handle this."
IAM is calling the decision "the first striking workers in Maine to be eligible for unemployment benefits." Nearly 800 striking workers at FairPoint Communications received unemployment backpay following a four-month strike in 2015. Woodland Pulp workers say they were told by the state Department of Labor that they might be the first to receive unemployment benefits during an active strike.
IAM and Woodland Pulp negotiators are meeting again on Wednesday to continue contract negotiations, Wolf said.